This review is part of Playing by the Book’s blog carnival. The topic for this month is music. Details on past and previous topics can be found here. The topic for this month is ‘music’ and so I’m reviewing ‘The Cello’ by James Riordan.
Published in 2003, it’s one of the few ‘modern’ books that deals overtly with extreme musical talent in people with impoverished backgrounds. There’s a few similar titles previous to this book, perhaps most noticeably the Pennington series by KM Peyton, but The Cello is rare in its treatment of music.
Here we see music being used as a parallel to Tom’s developing awareness of his sexuality and ultimately facilitating his escape from the estate. It’s a short book and one that almost introduces the topic of music as a secondary thought. The cello itself only appears after several incidents around Tom trying to discover and rationalise his sense of self. He wants to fit in. Being musically talented is merely something that won’t help him in the process.
There are points when the difference between music-loving Tom’s mum and the ‘rest of society’ become a little heavy and too obvious but they’re few and far between. Music is presented ultimately as a saving force and it’s handled best in the relationship between Mr Wimbush, Tom’s mentor, and Tom as opposed to the more obvious social commentary delivered by his mother.
There’s also some strong internal tension in the book which helps to create a discomforting experience. It’s fascinating to see how certain types of music are acceptable – and others are distinctly not “So popular was the Music Club that it had three sections…steel band … pop workshop … and the String group [Tom’s]. This was by far the smallest, made up of our classical string instruments and padded out with teachers and outsiders – mainly governors and parents. Most of the school didn’t even know of its existence” (29/30)
The classical musicians are different from the other musicians. The Cello displays a hierarchical attitude towards giftedness which is unusual. Many of the other books I’ve researched on genius and extreme talent tend to present a relatively equal attitude towards giftedness. All giftedness is, to paraphrase Animal Farm, equal but some gifts in The Cello are more equal.
Tom is constantly struggling for his identity and nearly everything in this book has an impact on him. In The Cello, Riordan has created an unusual novel which reaches much deeper than it may initially seem to do.